Sensory Needs: Behavior is Communication

Because Richie has a significant speech delay, there are many times when he is unable to tell us the source of his frustrations. Over the years, and through several modalities, we have tried to give him tools to communicate his needs.

At birth, we started baby sign language using a couple of books and DVDs. We later used the Signing Times DVD and CD series to expand his vocabulary. Over time, he was able to sign more than 100 words, mostly naming items to tell us what toys or activities he wanted. Eventually, when he was able to use a speaking valve with his trach, we transitioned away from signing and focused on verbal language.

Dysarthria makes Richie’s speech somewhat unclear, but we are able to understand quite a bit of what he says, especially now that he doesn’t have the trach. However, there have been times when he is pouty, fussy or crying and isn’t able to articulate the reason. During these times, we look at his behavior as an attempt to communicate his needs to us.

Lately, I have realized just how complex sensory needs are, and I am responding to these episodes of frustration with sensory activities. When he’s fussy or grouchy with no known reason, I use the Wilbarger brushing method with joint compressions to give him some stabilizing sensory input. Deep-pressure massage also seems to help. I am amazed at how quickly he calms with these activities.

It would be easy to dismiss his frustrated behaviors as tantrums and simply try to talk him down when he is agitated, but looking at this behavior as communication of sensory overload allows me to be more sensitive (pun intended) to his needs. The sensory input or deprivation methods will differ for each child, of course. It has been rewarding to begin understanding Richie’s sensory world and responding in a way that solves the problem and settles him.

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Charisse Montgomery is the author of the Super Safe Kids series of books and safety tools. These tools engage children, parents, and their families in improving safety and advocacy in the hospital, the community and the home. A former educator, Charisse Montgomery has earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English, along with a master's degree in Educational Psychology, with research focused on informing and empowering parents of medically fragile children. She completed a graduate certificate in Patient Advocacy and serves on the Board at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

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